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Cowra–Japan conversations
David Hobson as senior history teacher, Cowra High School
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 6 August 2004 (AWM S03333)
TERRY COLHOUN: David, I know that you have been in Cowra for a long time, in fact longer than teachers usually stay in one place. It suggests that Cowra has a particular attraction for you.

DAVID HOBSON: Cowra has a personal attraction in the sense that my family live in Bathurst, which is only 100 kilometres away. My wife’s family live there, so it’s close to the people who we, and our children, obviously have a very close relationship with. I suppose that’s what drew us to Cowra. Perhaps important in that question is why we haven’t left. Obviously that personal attraction is very important, but what Cowra has to offer children, what it has to offer me personally, and what it has to offer me professionally – and I think it is the professional side that links in very much with the Cowra breakout and the process of reconciliation. I find it difficult to think of anywhere else I could go where my children could grow up in a country environment and still realise that there is a very big multicultural world, which perhaps isn’t a part of a typical country town. Acts of reconciliation and knowing people from other nations – particularly the Japanese – I think it broadens their perspective and I think it broadens mine. The way the people of the Cowra community have reacted to the breakout and what has happened is a very uplifting experience. I feed proud to be a part of that, to know the people, to live with those people and to grow with those people.
COLHOUN: That’s more or less a personal feeling. As a professional historian, to what extent has Cowra’s history affected you?

HOBSON: The history of Cowra, particularly the breakout, I suppose that’s where it started. It fascinates me because there are so many stories and my understanding of the breakout, my historical understanding of the breakout, came from those diverse stories. There was dispute and conjecture – all of those things I believe that history is about. It is not a set of facts or incidents that happened to everybody – the same thing for everybody. I think it’s a very personal aspect. But professionally, the Cowra breakout in particular lends itself to that, shows that it is a living example of it day after day after day. I often run into people today – or 5 years ago – who say their story about the breakout is different and that’s intriguing.
COLHOUN: Well no doubt you incorporate some of this into your teaching, and I assume the curriculum allows that, but if it is happening all the time and it is gradual, is it making it more difficult for you to get Cowra children to realise they are in fact part of history, they are seeing history taking place in front of them?

HOBSON: It does cause some difficulty to some students. It’s been said to me by some students that they won’t select senior history once they have done the core history, which is mandatory. They won’t select it because it is not definite enough. There are no rules, there are no set procedures, there are no mechanisms that are set in practice, so you have to use your imagination in history. Those students who feel uncomfortable with that find Cowra’s history per se difficult. But other students, I think, aren’t challenged by it. They feel warm within that environment and can be a part of a history that’s their history, their understanding, where it’s okay to be different, to have a different view, and a different perspective. So I think for many students, they lean to and warm to it, feel a part of it. Rather than being put off and scared by history, they feel as though they are a part of it. History is happening to them and if it’s changing, then that’s okay – they’re changing with it and it’s changing because of them.
COLHOUN: Well, every year you have an exchange with a Japanese High School, Seikei in Tokyo, which means a Japanese student comes here for a year and a student from here goes to Japan. What effect does this have on history? In a sense, I suppose you have got to teach the Japanese something about what’s going on?

HOBSON: What impact does it have on history?
COLHOUN: Well, that’s one aspect of it. I was thinking what impact on your teaching, the fact that you have got this exchange all the time taking place.

HOBSON: I suppose a very important part of our history program, particularly with 15 or 16 year old students, is to investigate how our history with Japan, in particular, but with other nations, has changed. We look at how our relationship has changed and how we went from a situation of war and animosity to a situation where we are embracing migration etc. So having living proof of that, and having an example on board all the time is very, very important. Our students every day rub shoulders with, talk to, glean ideas of how Japanese students feel about the world. So it is a strength for us, in terms of history and how things have changed, and perhaps are changing. I suppose that’s the cultural aspect to history.
COLHOUN: Have you tried to collect information yourself, about the breakout and the consequential results of it?

HOBSON: Oh, most certainly, and I suppose that’s where my love of the professional life of Cowra as a historian comes in. It’s given me the opportunity to gain a lot of material through interviews with people who were involved. So it’s an oral history I have collected over perhaps ten or more years regarding different people’s perspective of the breakout. I suppose it’s that single incident which significantly changed my understanding of what is history. It showed me that there are many histories. It’s like layers of history. Each person has their layer and if you compile them, you have a much fuller picture of events and feelings and how things have changed, particularly in Cowra, between Australia and Japan. It’s very exciting.
COLHOUN: What do you think about the program of events in Cowra this week, and the way people from Australia and Japan have reacted to them?

HOBSON: I feel uplifted. I feel it’s a very warm indication of how human beings can relate, and can share ideas and history. I suppose that is the most important thing. They can share their history and realise that time can change our perspectives. I think for this week in particular, we have had a great committee who have organised many different events – different in terms of the kind of event, who they are pitched at, and who they involve. Overall, we have a situation where I think it caters for the whole community – I think it has brought history to the community. It is an example of the reconciliation that has taken place. I don’t know how the Japanese must feel, but in coming to terms with their past and the realisation that there is a whole host of people in Cowra who want to join with them and celebrate and reflect on the past, I think it must be a wonderful thing for them.
COLHOUN: What about for us, we have been on a journey, or Cowra has been on a journey on behalf of Australia, really for, you know, a whole generation or more. You have been in the middle of it for most of that time. It’s sort of almost a natural evolution of reconciliation, which is quite unique. Do you think this is going to continue?

HOBSON: I think it will. I’m a bit unsure about what will happen in, perhaps, ten years time because what we have now we won’t have in 10–15 years time. We won’t have living memories of those people. The people are becoming too old and we won’t have them with us for much longer. I don’t know how well Cowra will be able to embrace the same kind of feelings using monuments and photographs and talks, using secondary evidence from people who weren’t there. One of the most wonderful things in this process is being able to have that very tangible resource of someone’s feelings, someone speaking about their past and speaking about events, because you can feel those, they’re very real. The further you remove yourself from that, perhaps, the lesser the impact. That’s a little concerning, but there’s been a very good foundation put in.
COLHOUN: I suppose to some extent, people like yourself are a key to this. It’s the success that you have in teaching the young people to continue to a period where history is no longer the living thing but it’s a reporting on things that were, in a sense no longer.

HOBSON: Most certainly, and that will be a challenge. I feel that for me it won’t be so much of a challenge. My colleagues – we have four history teachers here, myself and three others – haven’t been able, I suppose, to go through the oral history process. That process has enabled me to feel as though I have a good understanding. I can speak quite confidently about different aspects of the breakout because of the knowledge I gained from people who were involved. My colleagues feel as though they don’t have that to the same extent so theirs is more of a bookish kind of history. The more bookish it becomes, the less you relate to students. However, because of the materials we have here … I should talk about some of them. We primarily teach the breakout and the period of reconciliation to students who are 14 – year 8 students. The compulsory component for those students is to complete an assignment on local history and, invariably, perhaps 50 per cent of those students will focus on the breakout because it’s something that they … it’s a hands on thing that they deal with. It’s almost a tradition within the school that you know about the breakout, that you learn about the breakout. It’s a 15 minute walk over the hill to the campsite. It’s a 25 minute walk to the War Cemeteries. So in that sense the students can live that sort of history. Now standing beside a grave at the Japanese War Cemetery helps those students attune with those kind of things. Those things will always be with us as long as we can continue to publicly recognise them, and I think that public recognition by the town, by the parents, and by the school is so very, very important.

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Transcribed by WRITEpeople, November 2004

The transcripts of interviews published on this website have been lightly edited, principally on stylistic grounds. You may download, display, print and reproduce this material in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or use within your organisation. Tapes of the original interviews are held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.

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Cyril Treasure
Telfer & Cowley
Gary Beck
Bruce Miller
Steve & Chris Kawamata
Don Kibbler
Graeme Drew
Robert Griffiths
Catherine Bennett
Barbara Bennett
Tony Mooney
Neville Armstrong
Don Kibbler (2)
Jan Munday
Harold & Dale Starr
Graham Stewart
David Hobson
Lawrance Ryan (1)
Lawrance Ryan (2)
Lucy Tasker
William Crews

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